Title Excerpt Author Date Total Comments Recent Comment
Welcome to Wordorigins.org Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons.… Dave Wilton 02/01/19 0
suborn Suborn is a verb that is usually heard in the context of lying under oath, and indeed roughly half of the instances of the verb in the Corpus of Contemporary American English are in the phrase suborn perjury. The verb clearly means to induce someone to commit a crime, but… Dave Wilton 01/19/19 0
ADS 2018 Word of the Year Every year I report on the American Dialect Society’s selections for Word of the Year. There are lots of organizations that propose such a word, and I do so myself, but I generally only write up the ADS choice. That may be because the ADS, an organization of academic linguists… Dave Wilton 01/09/19 0
Ultima Thule, Thule On 1 January 2019, New Horizons space probe passed Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule. Almost every news report of the encounter says that the name means “beyond the edges of the known world.” But that is not exactly the case. Ultima Thule is not a vague, undefined… Dave Wilton 01/03/19 0
Thule, Ultima Thule See Ultima Thule Dave Wilton 01/03/19 0
Good-bye to Facebook I’ve deleted the Wordorigins.org Facebook page. It only contained links to the site and no content that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Facebook changed the interface for its web pages as of today, and I couldn’t find a way to post something new. (I’m sure there is a way, but it… Dave Wilton 01/01/19 0
Hogmanay Hogmanay is a Scottish dialect word for New Year’s Eve or a present given, especially to children, on that day. The word is recorded in Latin as early as 1443: Et solutum xxxj die decembris magn. hagnonayse xijd. et parv. hagnonayse viijd. (And paying on the thirty-first day of December… Dave Wilton 01/01/19 0
2018 Words of the Year As in past years, I’ve come up with a list of words of the year. I do things a bit differently than other such lists in that I select twelve terms, one for each month. During the year as each month passed, I selected one word that was prominent in… Dave Wilton 12/26/18 0
Lodestar This week the New York Times took the unusual step of publishing an anonymous op-ed piece by someone identified as “a senior official in the Trump administration” that was sharply critical of Trump. The writer described the president as incompetent and out of his depth and said that they and… Dave Wilton 09/06/18 0
just do it Nike’s famous Just Do It advertising campaign was launched in 1988 and went on to become one of the most famous slogans of all time. But the inspiration for the slogan is somewhat morbid, rooted in the execution of an infamous spree killer. Dave Wilton 09/04/18 0
Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen is the most famous aviator of World War I, if not of all time. Credited with eighty air-to-air victories, he shot down more planes than any other flyer in the war. And he is popularly known as the Red Baron, probably because as commander of Jagdgeschwader (fighter… Dave Wilton 08/22/18 0
Katy, bar the door Katy (or Katie) bar the door is an American catchphrase used to warn of impending danger. The bar the door part is self-explanatory, referring to locking a door against intruders. But who is Katy? There’s no satisfactory answer to that question, but the phrase is connected with traditional folk music… Dave Wilton 08/19/18 0
crisis actor The term crisis actor originated in the emergency preparedness community and originally referred to actors available for hire to participate in disaster and mass casualty drills as victims, witnesses, criminals, etc. Hiring trained actors is thought to increase the realism and effectiveness of such drills. But after the December 2012… Dave Wilton 08/16/18 0
unicorn We all know a unicorn is a mythical creature resembling a horse with a single horn projecting from its forehead, but the term has some quite interesting slang uses. The word comes to English via Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken in England after the Norman conquest, and ultimately from… Dave Wilton 08/15/18 0
whole nine yards, the Few phrases have as many tales attached to their origin as does the whole nine yards, which has spawned a raft of popular etymologies, all of them wrong. The phrase doesn’t have one particular origin, nor does it represent one particular metaphor. Instead, it seems to have evolved from a… Dave Wilton 08/12/18 9 04/13/08
gaffe A gaffe is a mistake, a blunder, especially a verbal faux pas made by a politician. The word is a borrowing from the French, but its English use may been influenced by a Scots word as well as by a Vaudeville method of removing a floundering performer from the stage.… Dave Wilton 08/11/18 0
testilying Testilying is a blend of testify and lying and refers to someone, especially a police officer, committing perjury. It seems to have first arisen within the ranks of the New York City police department in the early 1990s. The term came into the public consciousness as a result of a… Dave Wilton 08/10/18 0
polycule Polycule is a relatively new word from the world of polyamory. A blend of poly[amory] and [mole]cule, it refers to a graphical or physical model of a polyamorous relationship, and by extension a name for the group of people in that relationship. Dave Wilton 08/09/18 0
butler A butler is the chief servant in a household. The word comes to us from Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken in England following the Norman Conquest. The Anglo-Norman word was buteiller, a cup-bearer or servant who served wine. The word ultimately comes from the medieval Latin buticularius. It is… Dave Wilton 08/08/18 0
saved by the bell Saved by the bell, which the OED defines as “to be rescued from a difficult situation,” comes to us, as should be no surprise, from the world of boxing. It originally and quite literally referred to a boxer who was about to be beaten into submission only to have the… Dave Wilton 08/04/18 0
Bechdel test The Bechdel test is an informal way to determine whether a film or TV show exhibits bias against women in the female characters it presents. It’s named for its inventor, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace test, including Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace, whom Bechdel credits with the… Dave Wilton 08/02/18 0
incel Incel is a portmanteau of involuntary celibate, referring to a person, usually a heterosexual man, who desires a sexual or romantic partner but is unable to find one. The term arose as a self-identifier and spawned a virtual subculture as those people reached out for support on the internet. But… Dave Wilton 06/29/18 0
cotton-picking, cotton-picker Cotton-picking is a difficult adjective. On the one hand its origin is rooted in a metaphor for slavery in the American South, and as such carries racist connotations with it. But on the other hand, it’s often used without any racist intent at all. So while someone might use it… Dave Wilton 06/28/18 0
white shoe The adjective white shoe is used in the United States to denote the establishment, the privileged, moneyed, and usually conservative, elites who traditionally run American businesses. But why white shoes? Dave Wilton 06/20/18 0
yodel Yodeling is associated with Alps, so it’s no surprise that the English word is borrowed from German. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb to yodel as “to sing or call using a distinctive style of vocalization characterized by repeated rapid alternations of pitch between the low chest voice and… Dave Wilton 06/09/18 0
run it up the flagpole The phrase run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes is credited to Madison Avenue admen of the 1950s. The phrase, and many others like it, is used in the context of brainstorming or “spitballing ideas” and refers to making a suggestion to see if people like it.… Dave Wilton 06/03/18 0
nimrod The use of nimrod to mean an idiot or inept person is often said to come from young viewers misinterpreting a 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoon, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Warner Brothers cartoon does play a role in the word’s history, but it’s not Bugs Bunny,… Dave Wilton 05/27/18 0
Major League Team Names It’s called the “great American pastime,” and baseball has been an integral part of life in the United States for, give or take, the last 160 years. So here are the origins of the names of the Major League Baseball teams, past and present. For those not familiar with the… Dave Wilton 05/16/18 0
plead, pleaded, pled The verb to plead, meaning to make an appeal or argument, especially in a legal setting, comes to us from the Anglo-Norman French plaider. It makes its English appearance in the thirteenth century. The verb would be just another unremarkable borrowing from French following the Norman Conquest, but the verb… Dave Wilton 05/14/18 0
Is Two Better Than One? My Facebook feed has filled with people posting about this Washington Post article about a study that purportedly shows that “science” has shown that typing two spaces after a period is superior to typing just one. The number of spaces that should follow a period is one of those eternal… Dave Wilton 05/08/18 0
Butterick’s Practical Typography This website is a wonderful resource for all things typographical, that is fonts, font sizes, spacing, and all those subjects relating to how a document looks. https://practicaltypography.com/ Dave Wilton 05/08/18 0
April fool No one knows the origin of April Fool’s Day or the expression April fool. The expression appears in the seventeenth century, and the association of the month April with fools, especially those foolish because of love or lust, appears to have arisen on the European continent and was imported to… Dave Wilton 04/25/18 0
Swearing In Tarantino Movies Who says linguistics is dull? Stephen Black is a British data scientist who has done yeoman’s work creating a tool for analyzing profanity in Tarantino’s movies. He’s also done an online concordance and tools for the King James Bible. [Discuss this post] Dave Wilton 02/17/18 0
The Oxford Comma and the Law The legal dispute between the Oakhurst Dairy and its drivers has been settled. As widely reported in the media, the dispute hinged on the use, or omission, of the Oxford comma. But the media, or at least the New York Times, is still getting it wrong. The ambiguity in the… Dave Wilton 02/09/18 0
ADS Word of the Year: fake news On 5 January, the American Dialect Society chose fake news as its 2017 Word of the Year. The ADS defined fake news as either “disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news” or “actual news that is claimed to be untrue.” The phrase was considered during the organization’s deliberations for the… Dave Wilton 01/07/18 0
food desert, food swamp A food desert is an area, often an urban one, with poor access to food, especially nutritious food and fresh fruits and vegetables. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from a 1988 Australian newspaper: New Caledonia, surely more of a food desert than anything outside five kilometres from the… Dave Wilton 12/29/17 0
2017 Words of the Year (WOTY) As I did last year, and on occasion before that, I’ve come up with a list of words of the year. I do things a bit differently than other such lists in that I select twelve terms, one for each month. Since similar lists often exhibit a bias toward words… Dave Wilton 12/23/17 0
cyclone Cyclone, a noun meaning a wind storm that revolves around a center of low pressure, has a somewhat interesting etymology in that it is a modern coinage using ancient roots. It is also one of those rare words that we can pinpoint its precise origin, a situation somewhat more common… Dave Wilton 08/31/17 0
hurricane As of this writing, hurricane Harvey has devastated much of the Texas Gulf Coast. (Here in College Station, Texas, we’ve avoided the worst of it, although it would be an understatement to say there has been a lot of rain.) But where does the word hurricane come from? It turns… Dave Wilton 08/29/17 0
5 Ways to a Faster PhD This article has absolutely nothing to do with etymology or language (except in the tangential way that it is about professional studies in the humanities), but it’s something I wrote about the problem of how long it takes to complete a PhD in the humanities. It’s probably not of much… Dave Wilton 07/27/17 0
star-spangled, spangle We all know that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner in 1814 after watching the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor: O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? But most of us don’t know… Dave Wilton 07/05/17 0
spangle See star-spangled. Dave Wilton 07/05/17 0
laneway Sometimes you don’t notice dialectal terms until you move away from the region. After having lived in Toronto for six years and then having moved on to Texas, I have just noticed the term laneway. In current use it refers to a back alley running behind urban homes and is… Dave Wilton 06/29/17 0
Emojis and the Law Currently, my favorite podcast is Opening Arguments, in which interlocutors Andrew Torrez, a real-life lawyer, and Thomas Smith, not a lawyer, discuss topical legal questions. While they typically stick to the law, in a recent episode they delved into the intersection of linguistics and the law. In the episode, the… Dave Wilton 06/28/17 0
armadillo The armadillo is an American mammal of the order Cingulata. There are a number of species of armadillo, of which the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is perhaps the most familiar to English speakers. That species is found in South and Central America and in the southeastern United States, as far… Dave Wilton 06/10/17 0
satellite In his prepared statement to Congress of 8 June 2017 (released 7 June), former FBI Director James Comey wrote about a 30 March phone call he had with President Trump: The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it… Dave Wilton 06/09/17 0
arch I used the word arch the other day—not in the usual sense of a curve, but in the sense of jocular, waggishly clever—and immediately got to wondering where that word came from. Dave Wilton 06/06/17 0
akimbo To stand akimbo is to have one’s hands on one’s hips with the elbows turned outward. The word dates to the fifteenth century, but its origin is unknown. There are, however, a number of competing hypotheses. Dave Wilton 06/03/17 0
confabulation, confab, fable Confabulation is a word with two meanings. It can mean simply a conversation, formed from the Latin con (together) + fabulor (to speak, talk). This sense appears in the mid fifteenth century. By the early seventeenth century it had become a verb, to confabulate meaning to converse or talk. And… Dave Wilton 05/25/17 0
fable See confabulation, confab, fable. Dave Wilton 05/25/17 0
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